School start and Omikron: Abitur exam with mask

Status: 06.01.2022 12:34 p.m.

This week school lessons started again in many places – despite Omikron mostly in attendance. There was a surprise for the Abitur classes in Rhineland-Palatinate.

By Vera Schmidberger, SWR

“That was again at very short notice,” says school principal Armin Rebholz from the Werner-Heisenberg-Gymnasium in Bad Dürkheim in Rhineland-Palatinate. He means the new mask requirement for high school graduates. Unlike in the other federal states, the Abitur exams have already started this week in Rhineland-Palatinate. It all started with biology and physics at the Heisenberg high school.

Vera Schmidberger

The school management had only found out on the last day before the Christmas holidays that the pupils had to wear a mask during the long written examination period, except for ventilation breaks. Rebholz also had to deal with short-term changes in the distance between the tables: “Before it was 1.5 meters, now it is two meters – we had to make new seating plans for the rooms. And that, although the last day of school before the holidays is always a lot anyway is hectic. ”

Compulsory mask as a disadvantage?

Both the state representation of the pupils and the Rhineland-Palatinate state parents’ council protest against the mask requirement for the written Abitur exams: The continuous wearing of the mask makes concentration and performance difficult and is another major disadvantage for this Abitur class.

The Rhineland-Palatinate Education Minister Stefanie Hubig (SPD) remains with it – she sees the measures as the necessary precautions against the Omikron wave. On the first day of the written exam, those affected usually take it calmly: “Yes, it was exhausting,” reports 19-year-old Natalia Bernatowska. In between she had a bit of a headache.

The students would not have thought that the mask requirement would be imposed at such short notice during the Abitur exams. “But you have to come to terms with it,” says Natalia.

Quiet start in Schwerin

Around 700 kilometers northeast of Bad Dürkheim, at the Bertolt Brecht Comprehensive School in Schwerin, on the other hand, one is quite relieved about the rather quiet start after the Christmas holidays: “Only ten students in quarantine, and fortunately these are only return travelers and contact persons”, Headmistress Vera Arndt is happy. No wonder, Arndt’s school had to cope with a violent wave of illnesses before the holidays: a third of the teachers were missing. The headmistress sees this as a consequence of the extremely heavy loads caused by the pandemic.

Now she is happy that sports and music lessons can finally take place normally again. New regulations have also been in effect in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania this week. The Ministry of Education responded to the Omikron wave with a three-phase model. The stated goal: to secure as much classroom teaching as possible.

School decides for itself

The sick leave of the teachers is now also taken into account. If there are more absences among the teachers, the schools can hold face-to-face, alternate or distance lessons, depending on the number of cases of infection and the respective local conditions. The model takes into account how many teachers are still available in a school. “Now we as the school decide for ourselves how we organize the lessons within the framework of these phases and only have to inform the school office about it,” says headmistress Arndt.

Tests are carried out regularly in schools.

Image: dpa

Face-to-face teaching should be ensured, especially for the fifth and sixth grades and the final years. “We can use it to organize as much lessons as possible without incurring double burdens for the teachers, because we avoid them having to do face-to-face and distance teaching at the same time,” says Arndt. She hoped that this would take the pressure off the teaching staff. “Because the more substitute lessons we have to instruct in cases of illness, the more we reach our limits.”

Concerned parents

The increasing numbers of infections and the consequences for school operations are also worrying the parents of the pupils in many places. Christiane Gotte from the Federal Parents’ Council reports that the number of letters from concerned parents is increasing again. “We recognize how great the needs and fears of the families are,” said Gotte. For the parents concerned, it is therefore very important that the face-to-face lessons can continue to take place, especially for the primary levels.

Thuringia starts with distance lessons

The situation is different in Thuringia: Thuringia was the only federal state to start with two days of distance learning on Monday after the holidays. “For parents that means having to coordinate and safeguard childcare, job and everyday life again,” complains the state parents’ representative. She calls for concrete financial support, such as the payment of child sickness benefits in the event of illness and quarantine without a time limit and tax-financed wages for childcare due to school closings.

Pediatricians warn of negative consequences

The paediatricians also point out the negative consequences of school closings. The experience reports from pediatric practices at the beginning of the pandemic are now backed up with reliable figures: “Psychiatric illnesses have increased massively,” said Jacob Maske from the professional association of paediatricians in an interview with Added to this are weight problems, gambling addiction and extreme screen time. “All of this has increased, as a result of which children have suffered much greater damage than from the infection itself. And that is something that worries us very much and why any further school closings must be prevented.”

With a view to the increasing numbers of infections as a result of the Omikron variant, the pediatrician reminds us that a group that is tested as often as schoolchildren will show ever higher incidences compared to groups that are less frequently tested. “If one should get into an extraordinary infection situation through Omikron, then it must be so that all other facilities are closed first and the schools last,” said Maske. Because school closings caused massive illnesses in children and adolescents.

Compulsory vaccination for teaching staff?

Vaccination of adults is still the best protection for children and adolescents, he explains. In his appeal for an immediate compulsory vaccination, Mask explicitly includes the teachers: “We need the compulsory vaccination for teachers and professions that work with children as soon as possible. Why the compulsory vaccination should only be introduced in March and not immediately remains incomprehensible.”

Maike Finnern from the Education and Science Union (GEW) contradicts this. She refers to the high vaccination rates within the teaching staff. The GEW rejects compulsory vaccination. It does not solve the fundamental problems of school operations.

More planning security

The schools are now looking forward to the federal and state conference on Friday. Almost two years of pandemic management cost strength and nerves. Often enough, the school principal Rebholz from Bad Dürkheim received e-mails from the Ministry of Education on Friday afternoons and had to implement the regulations laid down in it over the weekend. He calls for clear resolutions in good time. “We expect that you won’t find out how the school should react to Omikron the day before.”

The GEW also complains about the lack of planning security and the federal patchwork quilt: Now nationally uniform procedures must finally exist, says the unionwoman Finnern. “Over the past two years we have seen again and again that health authorities have made so different decisions about quarantine rules for children that many people no longer understand it.”

Despite everything that the schools have achieved since the beginning of the pandemic, despite better technical equipment in many places and new experiences with online learning platforms or alternating lessons: “The worst thing we can do to our children is school closings and distance learning,” emphasizes school principal Arndt from Schwerin. “Because then we definitely won’t reach everyone, and the students lose important social skills in addition to the learning content.” The school is important as a structuring place.

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